Don’t be fooled by that photo. It may look like a spa, but there’s a lot of intense labor that goes on here. Literally. It’s a labor and delivery room at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center.

That garden tub is not for a water birth.

It’s hydrotherapy that helps ease the pain of labor and may speed up delivery. “It’s evidence-based science,” said Nancy Prothero, a certified nurse-midwife at Novant Health Midwifery in Winston-Salem. “Hydrotherapy can help with pain. And it makes sense, really. Think about how good it feels to take a bath or shower when you’re stressed.”

“Delivering in one of the rooms with a hydrotherapy tub is a great option for women who want to experience natural childbirth,” said Prothero, who’s been a midwife for 21 years. “They have the option of using it for as little or (almost) as long as they like. They have to move to the bed once they start pushing.”

Novant Health recently opened six of these hydrotherapy suites in Winston-Salem. Of the six, there’s one dedicated just for women using a midwife for their labor and delivery. The midwives’ birthing room has a queen-sized bed; the other five have single beds.

Almost any woman planning on a natural childbirth can request one of these rooms. But should she decide during labor she needs something more for discomfort – like IV pain medication or an epidural – she can still deliver in that room.

Nancy Prothero

The tub and the queen bed aren’t the only niceties in the midwives’ birthing room. “We have twinkle lights, essential oil diffusers and flameless candles,” Prothero said. “We encourage the mom to bring in her favorite relaxation music. Making people comfortable reduces their fear, which helps with pain relief and helps the labor process go more smoothly.”

Any provider with a patient delivering at Novant Health has access to these rooms. It’s already become a popular option, said Prothero. Most women planning on a natural birth are requesting hydrotherapy – and they can have it, space allowing, if they meet certain criteria. Hydrotherapy is available for most low-risk pregnancies.

The tub rooms debuted only a few weeks ago, and already there’s been a lot of interest. One of the most frequent questions Prothero gets is about insurance. She assures everyone: The rooms are available to any expectant mom who meets the qualifications, regardless of her insurance status. Even if she’s uninsured or on Medicaid, the hydrotherapy rooms are open to her.

Research-based relaxation

The tub isn’t heated, and there aren’t whirlpool jets. “We keep the water at a temperature supported for hydrotherapy – no more than 100 degrees,” Prothero said. “If the mom's temperature goes up, the baby's temperature goes up, and we don’t want that.”

The tub is clothing-optional; the mom-to-be can decide what feels right to her. “Women will wear a bikini top sometimes,” Prothero said. “Or both pieces of a bikini or tankini. Some women wear a T-shirt, and some choose to be nude.”

Partners are as involved as they want to be. Some pour water over the mom’s belly or massage her shoulders while she’s in the tub. They offer hydration and encouragement. Many women who choose natural childbirth have a doula – a companion during labor – with them. If a doula is present, she might do some of the massaging.

While the aesthetics and the atmosphere are a nice plus, Prothero reminds us that it’s science that led to the hydrotherapy rooms being created: “Research shows using hydrotherapy during labor can help a patient's pain and anxiety and promote pelvic muscle relaxation, which could possibly decrease the duration of labor.”

“This has all been well researched,” she continued. “Water immersion during labor improves placental perfusion, meaning oxygenation through the placenta to the baby, and has been shown to increase maternal satisfaction and create a sense of control for the woman.”

“Even if you get hydrotherapy and decide on an epidural eventually, you can still deliver in this room,” Prothero said. “Research shows that women who use hydrotherapy during labor use less pain medications and request epidurals less often. Even if it they use it for a little while to get to the point where they eventually need an epidural, it's still a very helpful tool to use.”

Although science has shown hydrotherapy to be beneficial to mom and baby, there’s something else at work here – something science can’t measure. Said Prothero: “A woman going through labor deserves to be a little pampered.”